DVD Review: Defendor
Defendor is a small Canadian film (though that’s sort of redundant; a “big” Canadian film is sort of an oxymoron) about Arthur Poppington, a dull-witted but good-natured guy who thinks he’s a superhero. Similar to the bigger-budget Kick-Ass (which coincidentally opens today; look for a review on Monday), Defendor explores the question, “What would happen if someone actually put on a costume to fight crime?” When I first saw the trailer for Defendor ahead of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I noted that it looked interesting and ambitious (which is code for “I have no idea if they’ll pull this off”), and as a lifelong fan of the superhero genre, I can say that while Defendor certainly isn’t perfect, it does manage to ride its unique tone quite well up until the very end, and first-time writer/director Peter Stebbings himself has immediately established himself as an up-and-coming filmmaker to watch.
Woody Harrelson plays Arthur, a semi-homeless city worker who lives in an old warehouse that he’s turned into a sort of lower-than-low-rent Batcave, where he hones his skills with a slingshot, marbles, lime juice, his grandfather’s World War II trench club, and wasps he keeps in a jar to throw at his enemies. He prowls the streets of Hammertown (it’s never clear if this is the actual name of the city or a nickname) as Defendor – he gets really gets upset when people pronounce it “Defender” – in his homemade superhero costume in search of Captain Industry, a mysterious (and most likely fictional) villain he blames for his mother’s death. He meets a young crack-addicted hooker named Kat (Kat Dennings, from Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) who lies and tells him she has a line on where he can find Captain Industry, and the two strike up a surprisingly sweet relationship as she tries to help Defendor in his fight against crime.
The trickiest part of Defendor is the tone; while the idea of a naïve dimwit (Arthur is said to have an IQ of 80) who thinks he’s a superhero seems like the stuff of wacky comedies (and usually it is), Defendor is much darker and more realistic. There’s certainly a lot of funny stuff here, but Stebbings is more interested in examining what kind of person would actually do that, what would happen to him, and what kind of effect that would have on the people around him. The combination of vaguely goofy comedy and gritty realism is a heck of a tightrope to walk, and for the most part Stebbings succeeds. I was pretty stunned at how well everything holds together for the majority of the film, and while the ending sort of collapses (more on that later), I was on the whole quite impressed.
Defendor is a remarkably good-looking movie given its budget; Stebbings has a great visual eye, and the action sequences are quite well put together. He manages to evoke the superhero genre while also clearly grounding the film in the real world; more than any movie I’ve seen, Defendor shows what would probably actually happen if someone put on a costume to wage a one-man war on crime. It’s never glamorous or sexy, and it never goes the way Arthur planned. Stebbings clearly has an understanding of comics and superheroes, and while he approaches the concept from a decidedly grown-up perspective, it never feels like he’s condescending Arthur/Defendor, or superheroes in general.
None of this would work at all if it wasn’t for an actor as solid as Woody Harrelson in the lead. He manages to make Arthur sympathetic and funny, but I found myself also cheering for Defendor, as silly as he is. It would be pretty easy to make Arthur just a buffoon, but Harrelson gets to show the pain at the character’s core that eventually drove him to become Defendor. Defendor would have been an absolute mess without an actor as good as Harrelson in the lead.
But it’s Elias Koteas that’s Defendor’s secret weapon. Koteas is a Canadian character actor who’s been in a ton of movies over the years (he first caught my eye in 1990’s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, playing Casey Jones, a low-rent vigilante who’s weirdly similar to Defendor), and he’s great in every single one. Here he chews the scenery wonderfully as the villain, a crack-smoking corrupt cop who hangs out with prostitutes and Serbian crime bosses, and like most great movie villains, manages to be hilarious and scary as hell at the same time. It’s an incredible performance, and the film takes on a wild energy every time Koteas is on the screen.
Michael Kelly is another excellent character actor I’ve been seeing for years who really gets a lot to bite into here. I first noticed him as the jerky security guard in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (he also completely steals the hilarious/awful Law Abiding Citizen in ONE SCENE), and he’s wonderful and warm as Arthur’s boss and friend. He plays the normal guy who grounds Arthur and his pretty out-there behavior in reality, and he’s brilliant.
As I mentioned, it’s the ending of Defendor where things fall apart. I obviously won’t spoil the details, but its seriousness felt unearned. I understand what Stebbings was going for, and it’s not that he lacks the talent to pull it off, but rather it felt like he’d spent the entire movie slowly (albeit entertainingly) painting himself into a corner, and wasn’t able to work the miracle required to get himself out of it. As much as it definitely took away from the movie, I can’t say it ruined the entire experience, and I’ve always maintained that I’ll take an ambitious failure over a movie that plays it safe and doesn’t take chances. Defendor definitely falls into the former category (though I wouldn’t use the word “failure”; more like an interesting disappointment) and as much as I had my issues with it, it’s the work of a very talented filmmaker assisted by an excellent cast.
The Defendor DVD has a really nice collection of extras on it, including commentary from Stebbings, Harrelson, Dennings and producer Nick Tabarrok. The track has a nice, conversational vibe; everyone’s friendly and cool and funny. It’s bit of a mutual admiration society, but everyone’s charming enough that it doesn’t grate.
There’s also a collection of five featurettes that, if watched back-to-back, works as a nice little making-of mini-documentary that covers almost every aspect of production, from the project’s genesis to the casting to Stebbings himself. I found it all pretty interesting, and considerably better than the standard fluff you that passes for bonus material on most DVDs. There’s also a handful of deleted scenes and a funny little outtake reel. Overall this is an excellent little DVD for a quirky take on superhero movies.
Labels: Canadian cinema, DVD review, indie cinema, superheroes